Issue 584 – 23 August 2007
by Jonathan Wingate
Björk has been making her unique brand of endearingly eccentric music for 30 years, but she feels like she’s only just getting into her creative stride. She talks to Jonathan Wingate
It is a muggy summer’s afternoon, and although she has been doing interviews in an airless west London hotel suite for several hours, the Queen of Quirk is in fine form and fizzing with energy. Having recently released Volta – touted as her most accessible album in a decade – Björk has a lot to smile about.
Although she has not recorded anything remotely commercial sounding for years, her albums continue to sell well, she still has most critics eating out of the palm of her hand, and, most importantly for her, she still does exactly what she wants to do, just as she always has.
‘To be honest, I would have expected people to lose interest a long time ago, but I was gonna stick to what I have to do anyway,’ she explains, nursing the first of several cups of steaming Earl Grey. ‘I do feel very lucky that people are still around and still interested.’
Björk is the sort of person it is pretty much impossible to be neutral about. Whether you love or loathe her music, you simply cannot fail to be fascinated by the woman who creates it. Today she is wearing a long, heavily embroidered black kaftan, silver leggings and dolly shoes, and a strange necklace that looks as if it is fashioned out of deer antlers.
In the current climate, you could be forgiven for thinking that her public persona – Bjönkers Björk – was largely a media creation, or at the very least, a massive distortion of the truth. In fact, in the flesh, Björk is actually pretty eccentric.
The papers delight in repeatedly reminding us of her often strange behaviour: whether it’s punching a television reporter at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok after she tried to interview her young son or the rumour that she was so unhinged while shooting Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark that she ended up eating her own cardigan, Björk insists that while there is some truth in the stories, they are more often than not greatly exaggerated.
‘Well, the media always simplifies things and they take one incident that happens for five minutes in one year and then that’s your life for the next ten years. But I had all these other moments you know, and the other 364 days in the year were very different from that particular day. I mean, there is still a grain of truth there, but it’s just taken a bit out of proportion.’
Having relocated to London and initially enjoyed the huge commercial success of Debut, it wasn’t long before her fame began to suffocate Björk – both personally and creatively. The most adventurous artist of her generation left the capital in 1996 to try to bring some sort of normality back into her life.
‘I did feel honoured because I’m a foreigner and I was living in England and I was offered the chance to be an A-lister,’ she insists. ‘Normally I spend a lot of my time solitaire. It just felt a bit weird, because I have to be able to write music, and when I walk down the street I have this music going on in my head. That’s my life, and it felt like a thousand people had moved in there and they were leaving their dirty socks around, so I couldn’t write music. I’m a pretty tough cookie you know, and if I could endure that and still write good music, I would have endured it; but it wasn’t creative, so it had absolutely no interest for me. It was boring.’
Volta contains enough wonderfully weird stuff to keep the loyal leftfielders happy, and just about enough hummable tunes to entertain the more fickle fans who got into Björk via Debut and then gradually lost patience with her increasingly way out music over the last few years. Still, overall, Volta is as poppy as Björk is ever likely to get at this stage of the game.
‘Because I’d done two or three projects in a row that were quite serious, maybe I just needed to get that out of my system. All I wanted to do for this album was just to have fun and do something really up. It’s about wanting to go out in the physical world and experience stuff.’
Do her physical surroundings influence the music she makes? ‘A little bit, but I’m so used to travelling all the time that it’s more of an emotional state,’ she says. ‘In my introvert phases I could be in a glamorous hotel or in a log cabin or wherever, but when I am in my extrovert periods, I’m probably more aware of my surroundings. I made Debut and Post when I lived in London, and they’re very London albums. Whereas with Vespertine and Medúlla I was living half in Iceland and half in Manhattan, and you can’t really hear a lot of Manhattan there because I was quite introvert at the time and it was a bit of a domestic bliss period for me, so I could have done them anywhere.’
As with most Björk records, Volta features an unusual array of guests – from Malian kora master, Toumani Diabate and Chinese pipa player, Min Xiao-Fen to Antony Hegarty (Antony And The Johnsons) and hip hop king, Timbaland.
What’s he like? ‘He’s very impulsive, confident and very male . . . in the positive sense of the word. If you think of the elements, Timbaland is very much one element . . . 500%. There’s not one drop of doubt, so you walk into a room and he does a beat and you sing on top of it, and then five minutes later, you’ve got a song. We always said we’d do something together one of these days . . . and maybe I was ready to do something with him now because I was kinda ready to be put on the spot where you walk into a room and you just do it. First we spent three hours together and did four or five songs, and then we met again for two hours and did three more.’
Intriguingly, many of the songs on Volta feature Björk talking about politics for the first time in her long career. On the militant sounding ‘Declare Independence’ she sings: ‘Start your own currency/Make your own stamp/Protect your language/Declare independence . . . raise your flag.’
‘Things have changed a lot in the last ten years,’ she explains. ‘I think the 90s started with this feeling that we will overcome our problems and everything was gonna be amazing. But if you look at history, periods like that are very rare, so maybe this is more normal. I like to think it’s the end of the dinosaurs and the Texan tycoons and white trash Christianity maybe. I think you’ve never had so many people interested in politics as there is right now. If somebody like me is interested, it’s gotta mean that everybody is, right?
‘It’s not me, I think it’s just the zeitgeist, and that’s why it’s really important to react. It seems like ten years ago people like me didn’t have to spell it out, so of course I don’t wanna explode people in another part of the world, and of course I don’t wanna ruin nature. I’m not saying I’m left wing, because I’m not. I still don’t vote in Iceland, and the few times I have voted I’ve delivered a blank. I still like to consider myself an apolitical person, but it’s just that in times like this, you’re forced to spell it out. I bet most of the people who marched against the Iraq war never even worried about politics before.’
Ever since Björk became one of the biggest stars in the world back in the early 90s, she has refused to rest on her creative laurels while still managing to keep her music in the spotlight: ‘The essence I don’t think has changed at all since Debut. I’ve just become better at working in the studio and I feel like I’m a better singer. People keep saying: “Ooh, between every album it’s a revolution”, and they either praise me or knock me for my short attention span,’ she smiles. ‘And I’m like: “What short attention span?” I don’t feel like I’ve changed at all.
‘I feel like I’ve come a long way. I feel like I’m much better now at putting down the music inside my head. I had the live side of my character and then there was the studio boffin side; the boffin side kind of peaked with Vespertine and Medúlla, and Volta is where they meet again. So I feel the merge between the spontaneous and the academic is more seamless on Volta … it’s more fluid between the left and the right hemispheres of my brain.’
At the age of 41, does Björk feel that she has to cram in as much music as she can in the time she has left? ‘Yeah, I do, but I felt like time was running out when I was a teenager as well; I think that is one thing that hasn’t changed. I’m very aware that I could live seven lives and still not do all the stuff I wanna do. But it’s not fear you know . . . it’s a form of enthusiasm. I feel totally like I haven’t even scratched the surface yet.’
The fact that Björk is still, first and foremost, an avant garde musician – albeit one whose records sell in their millions – goes a long way to explaining her enduring appeal. The other key to her continued success is her refusal to repeat herself.
‘I’m not gonna do the same stuff again, because if I did I’d be bored shitless,’ Björk chuckles. ‘I’m only halfway through. I try and talk myself into it sometimes, and the most sensible thing would be to do more of this again because I know I’d do it better because I wasn’t doing it for the first time and people get it now. I can hold my breath and do that for a couple of days and then I go: “Fuck that shit”. It would just feel like cheating. My attention span is rubbish, so I get bored very easily and it just isn’t any good because my heart isn’t in it.’
How much of the time does she spend thinking about music? ‘It’s sort of seamless. It’s not like I am thinking about music talking to you right now, but it’s generally more natural for me to interact with the world through my ears than my eyes. People who are into music are like that . . . it’s not just that I’m a weirdo or something.’